(You can follow Steve Andress on Twitter: @ColtsReporter)
INDIANAPOLIS --- The first piece you notice when you walk into Jim Irsay’s office is not the Vince Lombardi Trophy but Tiger - the main guitar used by Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist Jerry Garcia from 1979 to 1989. Tiger is encased above the desk of the owner of the Indianapolis Colts and centered directly behind his black leather executive chair, the first indication that Mr. Irsay, as most people in the organization call him, appreciates far more than football greatness.
“The love of music and the arts is something that’s really special to me,” said Irsay. “Being a guitar player myself, a songwriter, and a poetry writer, I really love collecting.”
Many Colts fans know about the passion for music their favorite team’s owner exhibits, but upon this author’s first encounter with him, it is clear Irsay is not just a collector of rock and roll but a steward of history.
In order to reach the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl XLI Trophy, you must walk about 25 feet to the opposite side of the office from Irsay’s desk. There you will find the silver trophy worth more than gold, but not before passing priceless pieces of American history. Gold framed letters worthy of the Smithsonian from three quarters of Mount Rushmore adorn the wall, written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Below the letters of those immortal Presidents, you find a display dedicated to Irsay’s literary love. The scroll Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road was not there, but when it returns, its glass case will be waiting.
“It’s in Los Angeles now, at the Gene Autry Museum on tour,” said Irsay of the scroll used by one of the pioneers of the Beat Generation, with a style of spontaneous prose that has become a sort of legend. According to National Public Radio, 100,000 copies of On the Road still sell every year in the U.S. and Canada alone...and the Colts’ owner has the first draft.
“I just was in an auction for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” lyrics, which I didn’t get, but I stayed in the auction right up to about $1.65 million,” Irsay revealed. "I bailed out on that one, but I love collecting things that have special meaning to me and our American culture.”
The Jim Irsay collection stretches into a secret memorabilia room inside the Indianapolis Colts’ headquarters.
The majority of the room is a homage to the Colts’ history on the field, including his father Robert’s time as owner in Baltimore, the move to Indianapolis, quarterback Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl, and drafting of heir apparent
Also tucked away in that room is more music and American history.
A transcript from Apollo 13’s infamous failure is on display. The movie would have you believe the famous line was, “Houston, we have a problem.” The actual NASA transcript in Irsay’s collection revises Tom Hanks’ grammar in the film. Astronaut Jim Lovell’s exact words were, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” A little known fact one learns touring this incredible vault of football and Americana.
Next to Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson’s locker is another framed piece of paper with original, handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics. Next to that is an autographed Bob Dylan guitar.
“Everyone knows how putting a song on in your car or home at night changes the mood,” he explained.
This endeavor is also a task that feels more like a responsibility, perhaps of lessons learned from other National Football League owners, including his late father Robert Irsay, who left the franchise to his son, when Jim became the youngest owner in the NFL in 1997 at age 37.
“I was taught by those that came before me: (late New York Giants owner) Wellington Mara, (late Kansas City Chiefs owner) Lamar Hunt, (Pittsburgh Steelers owner) Dan Rooney, who is still in the room, and even (late Chicago Bears owner) George Halas,” Irsay remembered. “It really taught me to be a steward.”
That’s a strong word. It’s a word Irsay’s head coach Chuck Pagano also used in his book Sidelined when he writes about servant leadership. That stewardship carries over to Irsay’s collection.
“Ownership is a great responsibility. You can’t buy respect,” said Irsay. “Respect only comes from you being a steward.”
“He cares about his people, and they feel the same way about him,” Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano said of Irsay in his new book Sidelined. “I truly cannot say enough good things about Mr. Irsay. There isn’t a better person in the NFL.”
That level of respect is the same countless other employees have expressed for him privately to this author, in the eleven days since meeting their boss. It’s also the same level of respect Irsay has for history.
Don’t mistake this for a selfish enterprise. It is not a rich man simply buying new toys. Irsay cannot be defined simply as an NFL owner. A man of his position will always have varying opinions, but general descriptions and broad brushes do not apply to him.
But this secret room shows Jim Irsay is at least partially defined as a steward of history.